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China draws skilled Chinese back home

Many who migrated to the U.S. are returning to an economy that offers richer career opportunities.

February 24, 2009|David Pierson and Don Lee

LOS ANGELES AND SHANGHAI — Xun Jia, a doctoral candidate in theoretical physics at UCLA, expected to find a job on Wall Street crunching complex financial formulas upon his graduation.

But after meeting with 10 recruiters to no avail, the Chinese native is looking for new opportunities -- in the country he left behind.

"I'm definitely considering moving back," said Jia, 27, who always envisioned himself establishing a career in the U.S. first but is now firing off his resume to contacts in China. "They need people to go back."

The Chinese government is counting on people like Jia -- nicknamed "sea turtles" because they journeyed across the ocean and then came back -- to help retool its economy and find paths to expansion beyond the cheap exports on which the country has relied for so many years.

Late last year, the government launched an aggressive campaign to lure them back and is spending millions to entice accomplished investors, bankers, researchers and engineers to come home.

During a 10-day series of job fairs in December, Chinese banks, universities and government agencies interviewed more than 4,400 people in London, Chicago and New York.

The southern city of Guangzhou has created a $30-million fund to attract overseas financial professionals and along with the city of Shenzhen is considering a multicity recruitment tour of the U.S. this summer.

The economic boom that lighted up China in the last decade had already served as a beacon to many expatriates, drawing thousands home from the U.S. and other places.

A record 50,000 Chinese students who studied abroad returned to China last year, an increase of 6,000 from the year before and more than double the number in 2004, government statistics show.

Though there are no official data, the presence of returning Chinese expatriates and foreign-born ethnic Chinese in China has grown over the years, experts say.

In Shanghai, about 4,000 businesses are said to have been founded by returned students, amounting to more than $500 million in investment, Chinese state media have reported.

Charles Zhang, the founder of one of China's largest Internet portals,, was educated at MIT. At the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, 80% of the faculty studied abroad, as did more than half of those at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

"You can find most things you were used to in the U.S. in Shanghai now," said Greg Ye, a graduate of Harvard Business School who returned to found NewMargin Venture, a private equity fund. "I feel like there's lots more opportunity here."

With the global recession slowing the economy to levels last seen in 2002, the Chinese government wants even more of those living abroad to come home in the next few years.

"They want to send a positive message that the government is forward-thinking" by looking overseas for help, said Clay Dube, associate director of the U.S.-China Institute at USC. "That's the political and public relations side of it. Then there's a real recognition that moving forward, you're going to need these folks."

Senior executives in Shanghai's financial industry said the interest was so high that they alone carried 330 pounds of resumes from the job fairs back with them.

Although it's unclear how successful the recruiting campaign will ultimately be, financial firms in Shanghai did recently offer jobs to 53 candidates as a result of the fairs, according to Caijing, an influential Chinese business magazine.

State media also reported that Chinese automaker Futian is eyeing laid-off workers in Detroit, hoping to hire about 10 specialists in research and development, production and sales.

The confidence with which China is courting its diaspora reflects the vastly changed attitudes about the country's prospects since the economy started to flourish in the 1990s.

In earlier years, many Chinese students preferred to stay overseas while China was still struggling to transition out of a state-dominated economy. A generation of students in the U.S. were helped along by the asylum granted them after the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.

But with China's economic boom over the last decade, the idea of moving back became increasingly palatable and, in many cases, attractive to the ambitious.

Multinational corporations opened offices, entrepreneurs broke ground and living standards soared in the metropolitan areas along the coast.

"The younger generation has no hesitation going back," said Henry Zhang of the Chinese Finance Assn., which helped organize a recent recruitment fair in New York. "I think it's a permanent shift."

Zhang, of Mountain View, Calif., is part of the older generation. He left China to study physics at the University of Texas at Austin in 1989 carrying all of $245. He knew that heading to the U.S. and staying there offered him the most opportunity.

"Before, you would go to America and never look back," said Zhang, 45. "You had no regrets. You just had to march forward."

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